How to respond to a colleague who has suffered a loss?

How to respond to a colleague who has suffered a loss

Not knowing what to do or say to a grieving colleague is an uncomfortable but common feeling. Thea O'Connor Offers some suggestions on how to support a fellow worker



Death, divorce, the loss of property or pets and other life events often trigger grief.

So how should you acknowledge and support a colleague who has just experienced a significant loss in their life?

In many cases, a grieving person is met with silence, according to Dr Chris Hall, Director of the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement (ACGB), which isolates them even more.

“In the workplace, it’s usually fear that stops people responding compassionately – fear of strong emotions and fear of making things worse,” Hall says.
So, what are some appropriate ways to show that you care? Here are some suggestions grief experts, including the ACGB, suggest:



Allow people to talk and tell their story. Don’t be surprised if you find listening challenging, it can stir up your own unprocessed grief and also leave you feeling useless, as there’s nothing you can do to “fix” the situation.


Avoid euphemisms

Platitudes such as “think of the good times”, “it was God’s will” or “it could be worse” disqualify a person’s grief and can make them feel their reaction is abnormal. Also, refrain from saying “I know” or “I understand”, unless you really do. 


Don’t avoid the person

Simple things you can say include:
• “I can’t even imagine what you are going through”
• “It must be so hard for you”
• “I’m sorry you are going through this”
• “I don’t know what to say, but I want to be here for you. I’ll come by later and see if you want to go for a walk.”


Offer practical support

Ask what help they need, but don’t be too passive. Instead of saying “let me know if you need anything”, offer practical suggestions. Help organise a meal roster with your colleagues or offer to help out with their workload.


Take a long-term view

Just when people start to feel the full force of their loss, support tends to drop away. Remember to keep up the support beyond the first few months.


Encourage professional services when appropriate

While most people manage their grief with the support of family, friends and colleagues, some can benefit from additional help.


Tips for employers:


• Make brief contact to acknowledge the loss and offer support. In particular, assure the person that his or her workload will be taken care of. Appoint someone to stay in touch while they are on leave. 
• When the person is ready, develop a return to work plan together. A workplace support person and reduced, flexible working hours can also be helpful.

About the author

Thea O’Connor is a freelance writer, coach and presenter focused on the intersection of wellbeing and business. She specialises in identifying ways to create healthy and productive work habits and work cultures.